Martin Mejstřík: Talking about a revolution

Martin Mejstřík conducted his campaign for the senate in cafés. Being elected surprised him, but this former student leader says he wants to remain true to himself, even in the world of professional politics.

You went to the senate as an independent candidate for Mr. Lobkowicz’s Cesta změny party. Why did you choose that party?
There was a certain development. I didn’t want to go into politics, I said that right up until 1999. Before that time we created the “Thank you – now leave” movement At that time I said to myself that if there were no other way, and if the quad coalition failed to pull itself together I would do everything I could to create a new party, and would be willing to go into politics. In the course of two years two main groups were formed. One came together around Michael Kocáb, and the other formed around Mr. Lobkowicz. At that time I visited Mr. Lobkowicz and told him I wanted to run. However, ever since the very beginning it was clear that I wanted to run as an independent and didn’t want to become a member of any party, although I was a sympathizer.

Why don’t you want to become a member of any party?
I think a party would have problems with me, and I with it. I’m a liberal, I need space around me, and the party system would tie me down. It wouldn’t be any good.

What prompted you to decide to run for the senate in particular?
There were practical reasons. I had some unfinished work that I wanted to complete. The parliamentary elections were coming too soon. Even more important was the fact that the parliament is built on purely party principles, which doesn’t appeal to me at all. That’s how it works there, and how it will continue to work, and there’s neither a chance nor a reason to change it. On the other hand, I think the senate is for people like myself.

Does money play any role in your change of heart? In recent years your jobs haven’t been very lucrative, and you have said that you’re in debt.
Think what you will, I won’t dispute it. Of course money is nice, if you have it you don’t have to think about it, but if you visit my web site you’d see that I’m trying to earn my money honestly, to deserve it. However, this carries certain risks too, such as envy, and personal risks – I’m really a bit afraid a person can become crazy because of senatorial perks, and can thus change. It’s happened to many people, and I didn’t like it, and now suddenly I’m in the same situation. I’m wondering about myself.

You were a representative of Prague 1 for the last four years. Is that how you prepared for further advancement?
Municipal policy is an amazing school. I got involved in municipal politics because I had accrued credit through my activities in a civic association of Malá Strana. I’ve always been a person who has a very sensitive view of the political situation and has reservations about it. Both under the totalitarian regime and after the revolution. Great disillusionment followed our discovery – I’m now speaking for our group of former students – that the revolution failed to make our situation any easier, that there are even more problems and things to be resolved.

In politics, do you mean?
Society opening up and becoming free was something we hadn’t even been able to imagine. We thought that if we elected politicians we trusted they would relieve us of our burden so we could do our own things – make movies, act in the theater, write books – but that wasn’t the case. We still had to think about it, worry about it, we had meetings, and sometimes we issued challenges. That was our naiveté. We didn’t know what we were getting into, what democracy means, what a free society means.

So, now you feel responsible for bringing about the revolution, and the situation isn’t turning out according to your expectations. Is that why you decided to fight fire with fire – to go into profesional politics?
That’s right. They (ODS) aren’t accustomed to dialogs or any communication. It has to be their way or not at all. And that’s a very bad attitude. I think that new people, younger than I, must get involved in politics. And it should happen in municipal politics, because there’s a chance there to change things from the bottom up. I could be one of those who can prepare the way for those who come after us.

You inherited Václav Fischer’s seat. People expected a lot from him, but he didn’t do anything special. It seems that people expect a lot from you, too. But when we look at your CV, we can see a certain flightiness in you – you haven’t stuck with anything for long. What do you intend to do to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen with your work in the senate, that you don’t follow Mr. Fischer’s example?
That bothers me, and it’s probably my own fault you feel that way. And you’re not alone. But this isn’t the right way of seeing it. I can give you two or three examples. First: If I had been such a chaotic person there wouldn’t have been any Národní třída on November 17. My friends and I had been preparing for it for at least two years. It was teamwork, but I won’t be too modest – I was running most of the show. We ran the first days of the strike, and we organized the Prague strike committee. A person who does such things must have management skills, a certain authority, and the trust of others. Another example: When I came to Malá Strana in 1991 and 1992 I immediately became involved in the activities of the civic association, and I think I did a good bit of work there. I could say the same thing about my four years in municipal politics. I worked on the environmental committee, and I think the committee was successful on some projects thanks to me.

In the senate you are a member of many clubs and committees. Can you say specifically what you’ll be working on in the near future?
I’m just getting started. Naturally I’m getting acquainted with what has been done well in recent years, with what we can do. One of my goals on the sub-committee for the protection of our cultural heritage is an amendment of the law on historical landmarks. Our predecessors tried to pass such an amendment, but in vain. I’m also a member of the committee on the development of the countryside, which is now working on a program for its activities. I’m also on the committee for Czech expatriates. I’d like to see changes in the election law so that Czechs (abroad) could vote, and I’d like to look into the double-citizenship issue.

You stressed the necessity of greater citizen involvement in public affairs, but the “Thank you – now leave” movement, along with other similar initiatives, fizzled out. Why do you think that is? Is it because of the passivity of the people?
Why is it that way? Because there was WWII, and after that the communists came, and they didn’t want an active citizenry that would get involved in public matters. People don’t just know it, they forgot how. They got used to the state taking care of everything. That’s also why I’m in favor of direct presidential elections, not now, but in five years. I’m also in favor of direct elections at the regional and municipal levels. The people here should get used to having the right to elect these officials, to take responsibility for poor choices.

A life in numbers
1962 born on 30 May in Kolín
1987-99 head of cultural review Kavárna A.F.F.A.
1989 one of the student leaders who prepared the student assembly on 17 November, then organized the Prague strike committee and took part in other activities that led to the collapse of the communist government
1990-91 government official for the return of property of the Central Committee of the Socialist Union of Youth. Graduated from the Academy of the Performing Arts’ theatrical department, majoring in puppetry.
1992-93 editor-in-chief of Obecní noviny magazine, issued by the Association of Citizens and Friends of Malá Strana and Hradčany
1993-96 editor-in-chief of the Český deník weekend supplement
1997-98 became chairman of the Association of Citizens and Friends of Malá Strana and Hradčany
1998-02 ran for Prague 1 municipal district representative as an independent
2002 November – elected to the Czech Republic Senate and re-elected municipal district representative

But the existence of such initiatives indicates that people want changes. Today’s right wing is very diffuse. Don’t you think it would be good to do something to break down the differences and bring the parties together?
I was one of the many people who helped set up the ODS, and in the beginning I supported it. I’d like the party to change, to become truly civic and democratic. It’s still the most powerful party on the right. I feel like a right winger, and the current situation troubles me. Cesta změny is a party that has as one of its goals the integration of the right wing. Unfortunately, our weakness, which is probably historically based, is that everyone wants to be a general in a small army. We must learn to compromise, to give up something to the benefit of the greater good and greater ideas.

You’re a man of religious faith, a member of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, and on your web site you joke about how you could be a member of another church, as Hus was a rebel too. But some people claim that your rebelliousness is just posturing. What’s the real truth?
My looking like a rebel is associated with a certain internal freedom. It might be a gift from God. I was free even under the communists. I see freedom as an internal condition, as a condition of the soul. One can be free even in prison, even in the Gulag. Some people think I’m a rebel because I say what I think. I probably won’t change, although I struggle with it, because the world of the senate is different from the world of pubs, and you have to watch how you express yourself.

Do you think that’s what people gathered from your campaign, that it’s why they elected you?
It certainly helped. But I hope that people also appreciate what I did on Malá Strana, that they saw that I was trying to fight for them on the municipal level as well. And that I don’t let anyone push me around. Maybe people just saw me as an unorthodox type of politician.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In the countryside and sometimes in the Slavia café.

How would you characterize yourself in three words?
A Christian, systematic and responsible. (laughs)

How would you like people to remember you?
As a person who didn’t let them down.

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